Renewable energy competition wants Alaskans to ‘fail fast’ to eventually find ‘gold’

Huey Winston, Forest Masters and Suzanna Caldwell discuss their website design for the Volt49 renewable energy competition. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“Failing fast” sounds like a bad thing. But when it comes to fostering the state’s growing renewable energy sector, the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development thinks failure can be useful. So this spring, it designed a unique competition called Volt49. The organizers want Alaskans to come up with renewable energy business ideas as quickly as possible, knowing that many of the ideas probably won’t work — at least not at first.

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In late March, Volt49’s organizers assigned a different challenge related to renewable energy in Alaska to four teams across the state, and they have had five weeks to solve it. One team, for example, has been trying to figure out how to power a server farm.

Another team was tasked with coming up with a tool to help power an off-grid cabin with renewables. That team met at a sports bar in downtown Anchorage on Monday. There, Huey Winston, Forest Masters and Suzanna Caldwell put the final touches on a renewable energy website they’re creating, hammering out details like whether a sun or a mini-lightning bolt would look better on the home page.

Winston said their concept has changed a lot over the past few weeks. His first idea was a backpack filled with equipment.

“Then it evolved into this cube which was made of solar panels that kind of fold out,” Winston explained.

But then, three weeks into the competition, the organizers arranged for the team to meet with a solar energy expert, who told them, “‘that’s never going to work, it’s way too heavy” to carry out to a remote location, Winston said.

The expert also pointed out another issue.

“Every solar panel is rectangular, so there’s no way to make a cube with solar panels,” Winston said.

Finding out their cube was a flop was a setback. But organizer Julia Casey with the Center for Economic Development said that’s exactly what the Volt49 competition is designed to do.

“Most ideas are garbage. And I say that in a loving way,” Casey said.

Casey said by forcing teams to develop a renewable energy tool in five short weeks, they “fail fast.” The concept is based on what’s called a “design sprint,” an exercise born in Silicon Valley; Google uses it to jump start new business ideas. And Casey said the tight timeframe is key.

“A lot of times people have a great idea, build it and ten years later they realize, ‘this doesn’t work,’” Casey said.

But putting “garbage” ideas out there can be helpful.

“There’s a nugget of gold in every idea, but you have to figure out what that is,” Casey said.

Casey acknowledged the ideas the Volt49 teams are coming up with during the competition probably aren’t going immediately lead to multi-million dollar businesses — and she’s okay with that. She said the goal is to unearth those “nuggets of gold” a little faster, and meanwhile, teach the teams about what makes Alaska’s renewable energy sector so valuable.

“In renewable energy we have a lot of expertise and very specific challenges that happen in remote rural places, that happen where energy is very difficult to create,” Casey said. “That is really, really cool and can be translated throughout the world in other places that have similar challenges.”

There are now over 100 Alaska businesses working in renewable energy, according to a report released this week by the Center for Economic Development and the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Based on interviews with dozens of renewable energy businesses in the state, the report concludes most of those firms aren’t focused on products — often, their biggest selling point is expertise.

“In this knowledge-based industry, many specialize in optimizing energy systems for remote or extreme conditions,” the report states.

Back at the Volt49 team meeting, Caldwell explained that’s roughly the idea behind the website their team developed. It’s called “Surge AK,” and it’s designed as a “one-stop-shop” for off-grid cabin owners wanting power from renewables.

“There’s a lot of renewable energy information out there, and a lot of products…but if you’re an Alaskan, where could you go to find all of that?” Caldwell said.

Caldwell and her teammates said they don’t think this website is going to make them a lot of money — none of them are quitting their day jobs after the competition ends. But Caldwell said she’s learned a lot.

“If I ever decide to become an entrepreneur, it really has shifted my perspective on how you do that,” Caldwell said.

And that’s exactly what Volt49’s organizers are after: giving Alaskans new skills, and if they’re lucky, an early “garbage” idea that could someday lead to the state’s next big renewable energy startup.

The Volt49 teams will present their ideas at a showcase this Friday at Anchorage Community Works from 5:30 to 8:30 pm.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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